Sunday, May 25, 2008

The good news out of Burma


Yes, there is some good news. When government fails to perform the basic responsibility that underlies its legitimacy -- to care for the people in time of extreme need -- other structures try to fill the gap.



Since Cyclone Nargis hit Burma (Myanmar) on May 2nd, according to "Avaaz--the world in action," the same networks of Burmese monks who led protests last fall have been able to bring in aid that the military junta tried to stop or steal. .

Avaaz members in 124 countries stood with the people of Burma, donating almost $2 million (1.3 million Euros) in a matter of days. ...

It's been a challenge to get such a lot of money in. Most Burmese groups can safely move only a limited amount of money each day through informal networks. ...We are currently working with the International Burmese Monk Organization and 7 other Burmese organizations, including monk groups, educational groups, and medical clinics, who have asked not to be named for their own security.

The way the money moves is through informal transfers between bank accounts and by hand. Sometimes it is as simple as a deposit in one country that is then withdrawn inside Burma by the account holder and then carried to a monastery or aid group. Because many merchants do this, the Burmese government cannot tell the difference between commercial funds and aid money.

Once the money arrives and is distributed to aid groups and monasteries, it is used to purchase rice, medicine, fuel and other supplies required to rescue, house and feed the survivors of the cyclone. Even in many of the hardest-hit areas, local markets are still working, with merchants bringing goods from other regions. In other areas the monks and other groups are able to drive supplies in, or move them by foot. ...

This work carries some dangers; Burmese junta has harassed and, in one case, attacked the groups we are working with. But in the vast majority of cases, soldiers simply arrive, warn our partners that their work must be authorized by the government, and leave. Once they are out of sight, the aid work continues.

Obviously there are limitations this sort of extra-governmental activity. If what is needed is supplies or materials that are unavailable in the country, they can't be smuggled in by informal networks. And the infusion of foreign cash undoubtedly will drive up the local prices of what can be bought in-country. Yet local social constraints may keep funds coming through respected monks from having as much of a distorting effect on local markets as would the same aid distributed through some foreign relief outfit. And aid that moves in this way ultimately builds a Burmese economy rather than functioning as a short term external stimulus.


It would be better if government worked for the people rather than ruling over them, but in the absence of a legitimate authority, Avaaz seems to have found a channel for international people-to-people assistance. I'm glad I sent them my small contribution.

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